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A candid friend of historiography

A short commentary on the method employed in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years 

“Of making surveys of Christian history, there is no end,” Diarmaid MacCulloch observes in his 1161-page book, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.  Yet he suggests that his approach stands out as more daunting than certain other notable contemporary accounts.[1]

As a historian, MacCulloch has crafted an illustrious career out of painstaking research and fresh thinking about the relations between and interpretation of historical resources.  He often devotes considerable attention to mining the darker elements of Christian history.  In Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, he takes seriously the notion that faith is a perpetual argument about meaning and reality, and seeks to make his own narrative sense of the historical resources available.

MacCulloch is frank about his bias.  He presents a lucid and provocative history of Christianity from a particular and apologetically self-conscious perspective.  He eschews much of what passes for contemporary religion as “willfully simple religion, and over-simple religion very commonly depends on taking an over-simple view of the past.”[2]  Raised in an evangelical Anglican clergy family, he describes himself as “a candid friend of Christianity,” an identity compelling him to “live with the puzzle of wondering how something so apparently crazy can be so captivating to millions of other members of my species.”[3]

According to Jesuit priest Father Brian Van Hove, MacCulloch “proclaims himself a [religious] skeptic, although he writes with the zeal of an apostate.”[4]  Yet, as Cristina Odone notes, MacCulloch appears to cherish “the gentle compromise, the decent and tolerant community that allows for diversity rather than centralized authority … [an] eminently Anglican [vision of Christianity].”[5]  These qualities influence the author’s approach to religious history writing at every point.

The author also seeks to be transparent and humble about his method, as only a confidently postmodern historiographer could.  For MacCulloch, historians carry specific intellectual and moral responsibilities.  In the introduction, he acknowledges the synthetic and necessarily generalist nature of the work, describing it as “no more than a series of suggestions to give shape to the past, but the suggestions are not random … My aim is to tell as clearly as possible an immensely complicated and varied tale.”[6]  He adds, “although modern historians have no special capacity to be arbiters of the truth or otherwise of religion, they still have a moral task. They should seek to promote sanity and to curb the rhetoric which breeds fanaticism.”[7]

MacCulloch holds that “[a]ll manifestations of Christian consciousness need to be taken seriously,”[8] and seeks to identify what he believes is “good” and “foolish” in the various forms of the Christian faith, in order to “dispel the myths and misrepresentations which fuel folly.”[9]  This is more than conscientious academic historiography; it is a personal moral quest.

There is also a sense in which MacCulloch, in adopting the strategies and style of modern historiography, wants to confront what he views as wrong or misguided notions about theology and ecclesiology.  For example, in an interview three years after publishing the book, he reflected that “church history has moved out of its old insularity, the tribal history of various denominations cultivated by themselves, to connect up with other aspects of history – politics, social structures, anthropology.”[10]

The decision to begin the telling of the story of Christianity a millennium before the birth of Jesus is part of this project: MacCulloch regrets the shaping of the church by Greek and Roman culture and politics, and wishes it had remained more true to its Eastern cultural and linguistic roots.[11]  Further, as the unnamed author of a review in The Economist argues,

From “inside”—in other words, for somebody who sees the story as a providential unfolding of God’s relations with man—it is possible to construct a single narrative, albeit one that outsiders would find skewed.  From “outside” the historian faces a problem of meanings and cohesion.[12]

Thus for MacCulloch, for example, “one must look beyond the texts by early Christian writers whose main purpose was to denounce heresy,” drawing justifiable and coherent conclusions from interpretations of historical resources, while recognizing that one’s own perspective is unavoidably privileged and subject to conscious and unconscious influences.[13]

Which brings us back to the issue of historical and ideological bias and its relation to scholarly methodology.  On page six of his introduction, MacCulloch notes that the Bible, containing the foundation documents of Christianity, speaks with many voices, and is prophetic in the sense of robust critique of privilege and the status quo.  He hints that his personal ethical vision and practice may have been subject to strong criticism by Christians bound by certitude or unbridled confidence in their own worldview.

The teleological or eschatological dimension of much biblical writing, and its impact on Christian communities and theology, also affects historiography relating to Christianity.[14]

This is perhaps a key reason why MacCulloch outlines his background and states that his narrative is “emphatically a personal view of the sweep of Christian history.”[15]  He confesses agnosticism regarding the “truth” of any religious belief, emphasising the reliability of experience over tradition, and phenomenology over metaphysics, but assures readers that “the story of Christianity is undeniably true, in that it is part of human history.”[16]

His compass is narrative rather than dogmatics, and his vision is ethical rather than ecclesial.


[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 1098.  The words in the quote are a play on the text of Ecclesiastes 12:12.

[2] Matt Pickles, “Behind the shining armour,” Arts at Oxford, 5 Jan 2012.  Available at http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/arts_at_oxford/120501.html, accessed 12 Aug 2013.

[3] MacCulloch, op. cit., 11.

[4] Brian Van Hove, “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years,Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Jan 2013.  Available at http://www.hprweb.com/2013/01/the-latest-book-reviews-5/, accessed 12 Aug 2013.

[5] Cristina Odone, “A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch,” The Guardian, 25 Oct 2009.  Available at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/oct/25/history-of-christianity-diarmaid-maculloch, accessed 12 Aug 2013.

[6] MacCulloch, op. cit., 12.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] Ibid., 12-13.

[10] Quoted in Pickles, op cit.

[11] Jacki Lyden et al, “Pilgrims And Progress: 3,000 Years Of Christianity,” NPR Arts & Life, 2010.  Available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126226424, accessed 12 Aug 2013.

[12] —- “The greatest story, or the trickiest?” The Economist, 17 Sep 2009.  Available at http://www.economist.com/node/14446991, accessed 12 Aug 2013.

[13] Ibid.

[14] MacCulloch, op cit., 7.

[15] Ibid., 11.

[16] Ibid, original emphasis.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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